There were stretches in St. Louis where David Backes met with Ken Hitchcock every day. Backes exited some of those meetings with less-than-fuzzy feelings for his boss.
“Sometimes I left the rink cussing him and not very happy with him,” Backes recalled. “You look back on it a couple weeks later and you go, ‘Oh, he was doing that for a reason — to make us better.’ ”
Some of those memories returned when Backes, prompted by the Bruins’ 3-2 overtime loss to the Hitchcock-coached Stars last Monday, reflected on his ex-boss. But the smile on Backes’s face signaled how five years of captain-coach collaboration imparted the right wing with more growth and wisdom than flareups.
As the Blues’ leader, it was Backes’s responsibility to help deliver Hitchcock’s message to the room. Sometimes it wasn’t easy. But the experience of charging through peaks and valleys to bring vision and reality onto the same page was one that remains with Backes.
The Bruins alternate captain, an engineering student at Minnesota State, enjoys puzzles. He was tasked with solving them in St. Louis.
“We met every day, pretty much,” Backes said. “I was in his office talking to him about what we needed that day or how we could get better. I’d say there were times when it was, ‘Things are going really well, let’s not let off the gas.’ There were other times where it was like, ‘How are we going to get half the guys to buy into the system tonight?’ Because it is very demanding. Over 82 games, it can take a toll on you.”
So it was with a sprinkle of nostalgia and respect that Backes took 21 shifts against a foe that felt quite familiar. Under former coach Lindy Ruff, the Stars looked to their legs to create their offense. They had horses such as Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and John Klingberg who were well equipped to play a free-flowing style. But this season, Hitchcock has not needed much time to transform a Ferrari 488 — albeit a misfiring one that missed the playoffs last season — into a mud-spitting Ford F-150.
Backes served at the heart of such a system, from the time Hitchcock replaced Davis Payne in 2011 to when he departed via free agency. Backes had heavy, committed counterparts in T.J. Oshie, Alex Steen, Patrik Berglund, Jori Lehtera, Troy Brouwer, Alex Pietrangelo, and Jay Bouwmeester. But Backes could also trust that skilled teammates such as Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, and Robby Fabbri would pull on the three-zone rope just as hard as the plumbers.
The Stars no longer play fast and loose. They are applying their legs differently: sprinting to and staying in high-danger areas, reducing space in open ice, and getting in opponents’ faces to limit their touches. It is Hitch Hockey, applied previously with success in St. Louis, Columbus, Philadelphia, and Dallas the first time around. The Stars are within the Western Conference’s top eight, ahead of Minnesota and Chicago in the Central Division.
“He’s got guys with high levels of skill, and he’s got them playing hard in the dirty areas,” Backes said. “They’re winning puck battles along the wall, committed to back pressure and backchecking so they can get turnovers and go back the other way. The first half of the game, I think they might have surprised us a little bit. The way they came out flying, physical, and in our face, it put us back on our heels a little bit. We did get going in the second half. But a lot of that is attributed to how he demands they play every night.”
Consider that Seguin, once an offensive specialist, is doing what would be unthinkable under Ruff or Claude Julien: killing penalties. Seguin is averaging 1:28 of shorthanded ice time per game. Hitchcock not only trusts Seguin to play man-down hockey, but thrive in such situations because of his speed and strength.
Overall, Seguin leads Dallas’s forwards with 20:18 of ice time per game. His assets are still on offense. His winning goal in overtime was proof of that.
But it was a hard and smart play that allowed Seguin to retrieve the puck that led to his winner. During four-on-three play, Bruins defenseman Matt Grzelcyk looked like he was about to win a puck race that could prompt a much-needed clear. Grzelcyk knew that Seguin was within his perimeter. But the only time Grzelcyk recognized Seguin as a threat was when the ex-Bruin lifted his stick, jumped on the puck, and picked his way through David Pastrnak and Ryan Spooner to score the OT strike.
“I thought I was there,” Grzelcyk said. “I kind of let up on it a little bit. He’s a great player. He made a great play, lifted my stick. I didn’t even really contemplate he could do that. He made a great play.”
From Backes’s perspective, evolution has been critical to Hitchcock’s results. There were times when Hitchcock used his right foot for two things only: mashing the gas pedal flat on the floor, and applying it up his players’ backsides. He has relented to the realities of the modern athlete. There are days off. He does not max out his players in practice.
Hitchcock, in turn, appreciates adaptation, especially the kind his players undergo. For most of his St. Louis career, Backes played like a battleship: heavy, impenetrable, and overwhelming. Through conversation, Hitchcock convinced Backes that checking opponents into the balcony on every shift wasn’t necessarily a healthy or efficient approach.
In Boston, Backes has continued his reboot. Even compared to last year, his first season with the Bruins, Backes is playing a noticeably different game. The right wing is more nimble. His turns are sharper. He’s quicker to pucks. Backes’s robustness extends deeper into his shifts instead of flaming out after an initial burst. This has taken place amid Backes’s diagnosis of diverticulitis and subsequent colon surgery.
“He’s a special guy,” Hitchcock said. “He’s had to make some changes in the way he plays. He’s had to adapt. He’s done it. We talked about that during the summer about what he had to do to change. He made changes. I think he would have had an unbelievable season had he not had that setback. Him coming back from injury or illness isn’t surprising. I liked what he did even before he was hurt, because he made physical adjustments in the way he trained. I think it’s showing in his game now. He’s a much quicker player. He’s got more durability during the shift. He’s made himself a real effective player because of that.”
Backes and Hitchcock trade calls and texts every few weeks. They are now ex-colleagues. Separation, however, may have amplified the satisfaction Backes took out of how they helped their former employer progress.
“For growth, for me personally, it was fun,” Backes said. “It was really beneficial to me. I can’t say it was always enjoyable. But it was rewarding. I took joy from it.”
Spezza sitdown gets some results
Ken Hitchcock has never hesitated to make his charges squirm. He believes that being uncomfortable can convince players to find another gear in their games. So even though Jason Spezza has pedigree, presence, and a $7.5 million annual payday on his side, Hitchcock had no issues about scratching the underperforming pivot for the Stars’ 3-2 overtime win over the Bruins last Monday.
“He knows what he needs to do better,” Hitchcock said of Spezza, who was parked on five goals and 11 assists in 44 games. “He’ll do it tomorrow, then we’ll be off and running. But we need to hit the reset. Enough for talk. Let’s get going and let’s start playing the way you’re capable of. He can do this stuff. He’s shown the ability to do this stuff. But we can’t keep having conversations with no results. We’ve had the conversation. There’s consequences for it. Now let’s play.”
Spezza got the message. One night later, the ex-Senator popped in two goals in Dallas’s 4-2 win over Detroit. He ended a 14-game goal-scoring drought.
“I was not happy about it and didn’t like the decision,” Spezza told the Dallas Morning News. “But you have to get through that and just work, move forward. I think I tried to approach the game maybe a little more aggressive. I thought our line did some good things early, and even if we didn’t get rewarded, we didn’t change too much.”
The Stars hope Spezza’s response is more of a revival than short-term spike. At 34, Spezza is no longer the pivot that drove the attack in Ottawa. But he is due $7.5 million annually through 2019. So even if his skills are more in line with those of a third-line center, Spezza has to be in the lineup, not in the press box, for the Stars to get the most of their investment.
Canadiens’ Mete has what it takes
In many ways, Victor Mete is still a kid. The Montreal defenseman is 19, not turning 20 until June 7. He is listed at 5 feet 9 inches and 184 pounds.
On Jan. 13, during a stoppage in play, the Canadiens congratulated Mete (Woodbridge, Ontario) for his gold-medal contributions at the World Junior Championship. When Mete offered his stick salute to the Bell Centre fans, he looked like a boy who had found his way onto the Montreal bench.
Despite his appearance, Mete has earned his accelerated entry to the NHL because of his sharp thinking, instinctual play, and ability to move the puck. Through 30 games, Mete had zero goals and five assists while averaging 14:56 of ice time, including 1:28 on the power play. The 2016 fourth-round pick has the attacking skills to contribute on the man-advantage. His offensive touch was one of the reasons Team Canada called Mete to duty, while the Canadiens granted the teenager his release.
“It’s a good experience overall,” coach Claude Julien said of Mete following a one-assist performance in the Canadiens’ 4-3 shootout loss to the Bruins on Jan. 13. “When you’re playing at that kind of level and under that kind of pressure in the gold-medal game, there’s a lot of pressure for Canada to win. We all know that. So I think he grew from that. Not only that, but he feels good about himself right now. All I told him is, ‘You don’t change your game. You get here and do the same thing I saw you doing with the World Junior team. You make good first passes, you skate the puck, you support the attack.’ He’s very capable of doing all those things.”
When Mete needs tutelage, all he’ll need is to ask Julien about his experience with Torey Krug and Matt Grzelcyk, two other Julien-coached mobile, left-shot, 5-9 defensemen. All three share the same liability. But being undersized has not held back Krug or Grzelcyk from contributing defensively by applying their assets of agility, quickness, and sharp sticks. Mete would be well served studying their shifts.
“I think it’s all in my legs,” Grzelcyk said. “If I start the game off well, I’m clean in my breakouts and able to join the play, it gives you a little bit more confidence the rest of the game. Just defensively, I think closing my gaps is something the coaching staff is on everyone for. Just trying to limit teams. When they have a lot of speed off the rush, they’re really dangerous. If you can close plays off at the blue line or coming into our blue line, that works well. That’s something I’ve been trying to work on.”
Seguin approaching a windfall
Tyler Seguin is counting down toward his biggest and perhaps final payday. It will be a big score. His contract expires in 2019, which makes him eligible to re-up with the Stars as early as July 1. Jamie Benn has established the ceiling in Dallas with an eight-year, $76 million contract. Seguin could do even better if he reaches free agency. The Stars have no interest in letting that happen. The ex-Bruin is proving that he has become a complete center. In that way, he is well deserving of an eight-year extension at or near Benn’s threshold.
Johnson looking elsewhere
In some ways, Jack Johnson fits the profile of what the Bruins need: a minutes-eating, left-shot defenseman. Johnson is looking to move from Columbus. In 2016-17, Johnson averaged 21:49 per game while skating with David Savard on Columbus’s No. 2 pairing behind Zach Werenski and Seth Jones. But both his ice time and his play have diminished this season. On Jan. 11 against Buffalo, Johnson logged only 13:43 of ice time. He is in the last season of a seven-year, $30.5 million contract. But the Bruins are looking for a younger left-side defenseman with both longer term and more pop in his legs than Johnson. The Blue Jackets would like to accommodate Johnson’s request. But the list of takers may not be very long.
O’Ree jersey retirement is overdue
Recently, Shawn Thornton made the biggest impact while wearing No. 22 for the Bruins. The native of Oshawa, Ontario, planted deep roots in Charlestown while skating, hitting, and fighting his way into Black and Gold lore. But even Thornton would not mind if the Bruins retired his old digits to recognize another player: Willie O’Ree, who wore No. 22 during his historic debut on Jan. 18, 1958. The league still has a long way to go to incorporate more players, consumers, and thinkers of color. But O’Ree’s courage helped to initiate the movement that continues today. The rafters of TD Garden should bear permanent recognition of O’Ree’s contributions — not just to hockey, but to life.
Barzal’s achievements sting Oilers
General manager Peter Chiarelli has executed some questionable moves in Edmonton. Although Adam Larsson is a regular defenseman, Chiarelli had to part with Taylor Hall, a slam-dunk No. 1 left wing. Milan Lucic may be contributing now, but the ex-Bruin’s contract ($6 million annually through 2023) is not friendly long term. Ryan Strome will never be as good as Jordan Eberle, but the Oilers made the deal mostly because the ex-Islander makes $3.5 million less. But the move that cannot be defended was acquiring Griffin Reinhart from the Islanders for first- and second-round picks in 2015. Reinhart washed out in Edmonton. The defenseman is stuck in Chicago, Vegas’s AHL affiliate, after being claimed in the expansion draft. Meanwhile, the Islanders selected Mathew Barzal with their 2015 first-rounder. The 20-year-old, right-shot center has promptly become one of the league’s most dynamic one-on-one players. In retrospect, the Oilers forecast sunny skies in Reinhart when only downpours have been present.
Among the sadder sights in the league: Montreal’s roster. Aside from Carey Price, the Canadiens have no difference-making players. GM Marc Bergevin has fallen short of his mission of building the best possible roster. The league is worse off for it . . . Even though the NHL is not participating in the Olympics, Sweden will feature future franchise defenseman Rasmus Dahlin. The prodigy, only 17 years old, is already a can’t-miss player. The Coyotes, currently the NHL’s worst team, would love to draft Dahlin first overall and have Oliver Ekman-Larsson help him into the league next season . . . The bagels in Brooklyn are excellent, and not just for eating. Held up against the ears, they muffle some of the Barclays Center’s sound system, which has no rivals in terms of volume.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.